Introducing phenomenological research
By Linda Finlay Phenomenology is an umbrella term encompassing both a philosophical movement and a range of research approaches. The phenomenological movement was initiated by Husserl (1936/1970) as a radically new way of doing philosophy. Later theorists, such as Heidegger (1927/1962), have recast the phenomenological project, moving away from a philosophical discipline which focuses on consciousness and essences of phenomena towards elaborating existential and hermeneutic (interpretive) dimensions. This paper outlines ways phenomenological philosophy is applied to research covering the following in turn: • • • • Foundational concepts for research Variants of phenomenology Gathering and analysing phenomenological data Evaluating the quality of phenomenological research
Foundational concepts for research
Applied to research, phenomenology is the study of phenomena: their nature and meanings. The focus is on the way things appear to us through experience or in our consciousness where the phenomenological researcher aims to provide a rich textured description of lived experience. The researcher’s project is, in the infamous words of Husserl (1936/1970), to ‘return to the things themselves’. The ‘things’ here refer to the world of experience as lived. “To return to the things themselves is to return to that world which precedes knowledge, of which knowledge always speaks” (MerleauPonty, 1945/1962). The life-world – Husserl’s (1936/1970) Lebenswelt – is a key concept and focus of investigation for phenomenology. The life-world comprises the world of objects around us as we perceive them and our experience of our self, body and relationships. It is the “locus of interaction between ourselves and our perceptual environments and the world of experienced horizons within which we meaningfully dwell together” (von Eckartsberg, 1998, cited in Garza, 2007, p.314). It can be defined as the world that is lived and experienced - a world “that appears meaningfully to consciousness in its qualitative, flowing given-ness; not an objective world ‘out there’, but a humanly relational world” (Todres et al, 2006, p.55). This lived world is pre-reflective – it takes place before we think about it or put it into language. The idea of life world is that we exist in a day-to-day world that is filled with complex meanings which form the backdrop of our everyday actions and interactions. The term life-world directs attention to the individual’s lived situation and social world rather than some inner world of introspection. “There is no inner
man [sic],” Merleau-Ponty famously explains, “man is in the world, and only in the world does he know himself.” (1962, xi). Phenomenological theorists posit there are certain essential features of the life world, such as a person’s sense of selfhood, embodiment, sociality, spatiality, temporality, project, discourse and mood-as-atmosphere (Ashworth, 2003, 2006). These interlinked ‘fractions’ (Ashworth, 2003) act as a lens through which to view the data. The task of the researcher is to bring out these dimensions and show the structural whole that is socially shared while also experienced in individual and particular ways. “The overall aim of lifeworld research”, says Dahlberg et al (2008, p.37) is “to describe and elucidate the lived world in a way that expands our understanding of human being and human experience.” In the life-world, a person’s consciousness is always directed at something in or about the world. Consciousness is always consciousness of something. When we are conscious of something (an ‘object’) we are in relation to it and it means something to us. In this way, subject (us) and object are joined together in mutual co-constitution. This important phenomenological concept is called intentionality and it is a key focus for research. In research, the researcher’s aim is to explicate this intentionality to do with the directedness of participants’ consciousness (what they are experiencing and how). Put another way, the focus is on the intentional relationship between the person and the meanings of the things they’re focusing on and experiencing. For example, one significant finding in research on one woman’s lived experience of having multiple sclerosis (Finlay, 2003a) was how she was profoundly concerned about the impact on her relationship with her children. Specifically, she was distressed by the numbness in her hands which meant that she could no longer do the “mummy thing” and feel the softness of childrens’ skin properly. The intentional, embodied relationship between a mother and her children was highlighted. Phenomenology asks, “What is this kind of experience like?”, “What does the experience mean”, “How does the lived world present itself to me (or to my participant)?” The challenge for phenomenological researchers is twofold: how to help participants express their world as directly as possible; and how to explicate these dimensions such that the lived world – the life world - is revealed. Meanings uncovered by the researcher emerge out of the researcher’s attitude and way the researcher poses questions. In particular, the researcher aims to ‘bracket’ or suspend previous assumptions or understandings in order to be open to the phenomenon as it appears. This bracketing process is often misunderstood and misrepresented as being an effort to be objective and unbiased. Instead, the researcher aims to be open to and see the world differently. The process involves putting aside how things supposedly are, focusing instead on how they are experienced. Husserl (1913/1931) originally identified several variants of ‘bracketing’. Applied to research, these involve:
the epoche of the natural sciences where the researcher abstains from theories, explanations, scientific conceptualisation and knowledge in order to return to the natural attitude of the prescientific lifeworld (i.e. return to the unreflective apprehensionof the lived, everyday world). The phenomenological psychological reduction where belief in the existence of what presents itself in the lifeworld is suspended. Instead the focus is on the subjective appearances and meanings. Husserl’s transcendental phenomenological reduction - a more radical version of the epoche where a ‘God’s eye view’ is attempted – tends to be rejected as unrealistic by contemporary researchers.
Variants of phenomenology
Phenomenological researchers today face a rich diversity of empirical approaches from which to choose. Just as there are many variants of phenomenological philosophy under the rubric of the broad movement (Moran, 2000), there are many ways it has been operationalised in research. The competing visions of how to do phenomenology stem from different philosophical values, theoretical preferences as well as methodological procedures. Different forms are demanded according to the type of phenomenon under investigation and the kind of knowledge the researcher seeks. Rather than being fixed in stone, the different phenomenological approaches are dynamic and undergoing constant development as the field of qualitative research as a whole evolves. “The flexibility of phenomenological research and the adaptability of its methods to ever widening arcs of inquiry is one of its greatest strengths” (Garza, 2007, p.338). The emergence of phenomenological research was led by Giorgi and the Duquesne Circle in the 1970’s (Wertz, 2005). Giorgi’s project was to develop a rigorous descriptive empirical phenomenology inspired by Husserlian ideas aiming to study ‘essential structures’ or ‘essences of phenomena as they appear in consciousness’(Giorgi, 1985; Giorgi, 1994; Giorgi and Giorgi, 2003). In Husserlian terms, the intuition of essence (also called the eidectic reduction) descriptively marks out the invariant characteristics of a phenomenon and its meanings. The phenomenologist starts with a concrete example of the phenomenon under investigation and imaginatively varies it in different ways in order to distinguish essential features from those that are particular, accidental or incidental. Variations of this phenomenological method have since evolved. For example, different versions or schools have emerged which focus more explicitly on the lifeworld (Ashworth, 2003; Dahlberg et al, 2008) and lived experience ( van Manen, 1991). Hermeneutic variants highlight the researcher’s role and horizons of interpretation such as in the Reflective Lifeworld Approach (Dalhlberg et al (2008), Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) (Smith and Osborne, 2003), Embodied Enquiry (Todres, 2007), Critical Narrative Analysis (CNA)(Langdridge, 2007) and in the Dallas’ approach to phenomenological research (Garza, 2007). With the heuristic approach adopted by Moustakas (1990), the researcher’s role in selfreflection towards producing a creative synthesis to explicate lived experience is
brought to the fore. In relational research approaches (Finlay and Evans, 2009 Forthcoming), attention is paid to the researcher’s journey and the research process focusing on how data emerges out of embodied dialogical encounters between researchers and co-researchers. One variant of such relational research is the dialogal research approach (described by Halling and Leifer, 1991 and Rowe et al 1989) where groups of phenomenologists investigate a phenomenon, dwelling in and negotiating layered meanings together. The information indented below illustrates something of the variations in approach by showing how research questions, focus and methods vary subtly. For example, if six phenomenologists, each utilising a different method, were researching the experience of ‘feeling lost’, they might phrase their research question along the following lines:
A descriptive empirical phenomenologist might well ask: ‘What is the lived experience of feeling lost?’ They might compare the protocols (written descriptions) offered by participants about one instance of feeling lost and attempt to identify the essential or general structures underlying the phenomenon of feeling lost. The heuristic researcher could well focus more intensely on the question: ‘What is my experience of feeling lost?’ While they might draw on a range of data from stories, poems, artwork, literature, journals, they would also look inward, attending to their own feelings/experiences by using a reflective diary. They would aim to produce a composite description and creative synthesis of the experience. A lifeworld researcher would ask ‘What is the lifeworld of one who feels lost?’ Collecting and analysing interview data, they would focus on existential themes such as the person’s sense of self-identity and embodied relations with others when experiencing a feeling of being lost. The IPA researcher would focus on ‘What is the individual experience of feeling lost?’ They would aim to capture individual variations between co-researchers. Thematic analysis would involve some explicit interpretation on the part of both co-researcher and researcher. The Critical Narrative Approach researcher would ask ‘What story or stories does a person tell of their experience of feeling lost?’ having interviewed perhaps just one person. The analysis would be focused on the narrative produced and how it was co-created in the research context. The Relational researcher might similarly interview just one person asking ask ‘What is it like to feel lost?’. They might focus on the co-researchers’ self-identity and ‘creative adjustment’ (their sense of self, their being-in-the-world and the defensive way they’ve learned to cope). The research data would be seen to be co-created in the dialogical research encounter and the relational dynamics between researcher and co-researchers would be reflexively explored.
All the variants of phenomenology above share a similar focus on describing lived experience and recognising the significance of our embodied, intersubjective lifeworld. Giorgi (1989) indicates certain core characteristics hold across the variations, namely that the research is descriptive, explores the intentional relationship between persons and situations, uses phenomenological reductions 1 and provides knowledge of psychological essences or structures of meanings immanent in
The reductions being referred to here include the epoche and the phenomenological psychological reduction (two processes of bracketing) and the eidetic reduction.
human experience through imaginative variation (Wertz, 2005). Other phenomenologists argue that the project to identify essences and to use phenomenological reductions may be less central. Some methodologies, for example the explicitly hermeneutic and idiographic approach of IPA, downplays (or even rejects) these features.
Gathering and analysing phenomenological data
The researcher is engaged in a process of trying to see the world differently - freshly and to attend more actively to the participant’s views (Finlay, 2008 Forthcoming). The researcher is prepared to be surprised, awed and generally open to whatever may be revealed. Dahlberg et al (2001, p. 97) describe this open stance: “Openness is the mark of a true willingness to listen, see, and understand. It involves respect, and certain humility toward the phenomenon, as well as sensitivity and flexibility.” The aim is to allow the phenomenon to present itself to us instead of us imposing preconceived ideas on it. This openness needs to be maintained throughout the entire research process, not just at the start. Of the many methods of gathering qualitative data available, some are more suited to phenomenology than others - there are natural affinities. The most common methods used include the use of: narratives in interviews, diaries and protocols; participant observation; and reflective diaries or researcher’s own introspective accounts. Supplementary techniques such as repertory grids, artwork or use of external literary or documentary sources may also be used to explore meanings further. The key quality in the data sought by phenomenologists is concreteness (Wertz, 2005). Details of the person’s lived situation rather than their abstract views or interpretations are wanted in an effort to access the person’s lived experience (which goes beyond what they have consciously thought about it). Phenomenologists doing interviews, for example, will tend to ask participants to describe their experience concretely by posing such questions as: ‘Could you describe a typical day?’ or ‘Can you describe that particular incident in more detail?’. This way of opening a dialogue is valued over and above asking more general abstract questions such as ‘what is your role?’ or ‘What is depression?’. The researcher’s aim is to empathise with the participant’s situation and offer further prompts geared to exploring existential dimensions of that situation. For instance, researchers asking ‘how is this person experiencing their day?’ They might then seek to apply such notions as ‘felt space’ and ‘felt time’. For example, what is the participant’s experience in terms of feltspace? Do they feel safe, free, trapped, exposed, small…? In terms of felt-time, does the participant seem to be experiencing this as pressured, slow, discontinuous…? When it comes to analysis, phenomenological researchers engage in active and sustained reflection as they ‘dwell’ with the data and interrogate it, for example asking: ‘If a person has said this, what does this suggest of their experience of the world?’. Beyond this reflection process, different methodological variants privilege either the use of systematic procedures or the spontaneous emergence of creative
intuition. For instance, using the analytical method suggested by Wertz (1983) and Giorgi (1985), systematic readings of the transcript are undertaken by first dwelling on the phenomenon (through empathetic immersion and reflection), then describing emergent psychological structures (i.e., constituents and recurrent themes). In contrast, with dialogal analysis (Rowe et al, 1989), researchers prefer to use open, spontaneous, fluid dialogue in a group context rather than adhering to any explicit procedures. Whichever the approach, researchers are involved in “an extreme form of care that savors the situations described in a slow, meditative way and attends to, even magnifies, all the details” Wertz (2005, p.172). “Phenomenological understanding is distinctly existential, emotive, enactive, embodied, situational, and nontheoretic; a powerful phenomenological text thrives on a certain irrevocable tension between what is unique and what is shared, between particular and transcendent meaning, and between the reflective and the prereflective spheres of the lifeworld.” (van Manen, 1997, p.345). To manage these tensions researchers may engage in reflexive analysis (Finlay, 2003, 2005) moving back and forth in a kind of dialectic between experience and awareness; between studying the parts and the whole. As Hertz (1997) puts it, "To be reflexive is to have an ongoing conversation about the experience while simultaneously living in the moment" (p. viii). As researchers, we need to strive, explicitly, to understand some of the connections by which subject and object influence and co-constitute each other. We need to acknowledge both our experience and our experiencing as researchers as well as be focused on the Other and their experience and experiencing. The precise form an analysis of research findings takes varies considerably. Often researchers will aim to identify significant themes or narratives emerging from the data. Each type of analysis and way of presenting the data simultaneously reveals and conceals. Different analyses highlight particular nuances and indicate various immanent possibilities of meaning as figural against a ground of other possible meanings. However rich and comprehensive, any one analysis is, inevitably, incomplete, partial, tentative, emergent, open and uncertain. The analytical process invariably involves a process of reflective writing and rewriting. This process aims to create depth: multiple layers of meaning are crafted to lay bare certain truths while retaining the ambiguity of experience. To write phenomenologically is to write poetically, says van Manen. It is the “untiring effort to author a sensitive grasp of being itself.” (van Manen, 1990, p.132). Whatever method of writing up is used, the key is to try to capture the complexity and ambiguity of the lived world being described. Vedder (2002, pp.206-207), drawing on Gadamer’s hermeneutics, describes of how metaphors can create meaning and so have the capacity to represent being: “In metaphor it is thus not about describing what is on hand in an empirical reality, but rather about making visible in a being something that was not previously seen…The poem produces the image…a coming to be of an expression and a coming to be of being.”
Evaluating the quality of phenomenological research
When presenting phenomenological research, its value is established by honouring concrete individual instances and demonstrating some fidelity to the phenomenon (‘to the things themselves’) (Wertz, 2005). Research reports may, for example, contain raw data such as participants’ quotations providing an opportunity for readers to judge the soundness of the researcher’s analysis. The quality of any phenomenological study can be judged in its relative power to draw the reader into the researcher’s discoveries allowing the reader to see the worlds of others in new and deeper ways. Polkinghorne (1983) offers four qualities to help the reader evaluate the power and trustworthiness of phenomenological accounts: vividness, accuracy, richness and elegance. Is the research vivid in the sense that it generates a sense of reality and draws the reader in? Are readers able to recognise the phenomenon from their own experience or from imagining the situation vicariously? In terms of richness, can readers enter the account emotionally? Finally, has the phenomenon been described in a graceful, clear, poignant way? Other researchers offer different criteria. The key is to recognise how choices of criteria are linked to epistemological assumptions such as whether the researcher is adopting a more realist or relativist position. For instance, many qualitative researchers embrace the use of participant validation as a way to ‘prove’ the validity of their research. When the participant agrees with the researcher’s assessment, it is seen as strengthening the researcher’s argument. Such confidence, however, would be contested by researchers supporting a more relativist position which recognises how findings have emerged in a specific context. Another researcher, or a study undertaken at another time, they would argue, would unfold a different story. In his critical exploration of participant validation, Ashworth (1993) supports it on moralpolitical grounds but warns against taking participants’ evaluations too seriously: it may be in their interest to protect their ‘socially presented selves’. As he notes, “Participant validation is flawed nevertheless, since the ‘atmosphere of safety’ that would allow the individual to lower his or her defences, cease ‘presentation’, and act in open candour (if this is possible), is hardly likely to be achieved in the research encounter” (Ashworth, 1993, p.15). Beyond the use of particular procedures to ensure quality, it is worth emphasising that the best phenomenology highlights the complexity, ambiguity and ambivalence of participants’ experiences. As Dahlberg et al (2008, p.94) warn, researchers need to be “careful not to make definite what is indefinite”. Lifeworld research is characterised by its capacity to present the paradoxes and integrate opposites demonstrating holism (Dahlberg et al, 2008). Wertz (2005, p.175) offers an elegant summary of the phenomenological project: “Phenomenology is a low-hovering, in-dwelling, meditative philosophy that glories in the concreteness of person-world relations and accords lived experience, with all its indeterminacy and ambiguity, primacy over the known.”
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© Linda Finlay, March, 2008